I’m still working on my larger project, but in the mean time there is something else I’d like to talk about: narrative styles, the difference between narrative and emblematic images, and how they apply to Quire 13. I will argue the following:
- Q13 uses emblematic figures within a narrative framework
- Q13 uses the “continuous narrative style”, which was common in Roman period and early Christian art.
Narrative vs emblematic
Here’s two pictures of Jesus. One is emblematic, the other narrative:
The smaller image on top is emblematic. It’s what you get when you google “Jesus”. The larger painting by Caravaggio is narrative, it tells a story. Even if you don’t know the story (which is the case for us in the VM) you still know that something is happening.
And what about the following example?
This is an illustration from the Vienna Genesis, “an illuminated manuscript, probably produced in Syria in the first half of the 6th century. It is the oldest well-preserved, surviving, illustrated biblical codex.” (Wiki) As one might expect, it illustrates a biblical scene, the story of Rebecca at the well, making it a clear example of a narrative image. Interestingly, it shows Rebecca (with the pink dress) twice within the same composition, kind of like a comic book without frames. I did not choose this example randomly, but more about that later.
Attentive viewers – which you all are – will have noticed that narrative scenes often include emblematic elements. In the Caravaggio painting there is still a sliver of emblematicness in the depiction of Jesus; his halo has been reduced to a single golden line, hardly visible, but it is still there as a symbol of His divine nature. And in the Rebecca scene, the nude woman all the way on the left is not part of the story of Rebecca, but rather a pagan representation of the well’s source. She is not really there, she’s a symbol, an emblem.
The Vienna Genesis employs a style of narration, called “continuous narrative” by art historians. One such illustration is that of Jacob wrestling the Angel .
The story — Genesis 32:22-32 itself is well worth a read – it’s one of those seemingly absurd scenes which puzzle and divide specialists:
The same night he [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
In summary, Jacob gets separated from his family while crossing a bridge, he then wrestles a stranger and when the stranger shows superhuman abilities in the martial arts, Jacob asks the stranger (probably an angel) to bless him.
Now observe closely how in this one rectangular image the narrative loops around in the available space, quite literally following the road.
Let’s have a closer look at the way characters are repeated within the same image. We will focus on the Angel (blue) and Jacob (yellow).
Jacob appears four times and the angel twice. Interestingly, the Jacob that’s just crossed the bridge appears to behold his own future fight scene unfolding before him. And the Angel overlaps with himself, once wrestling, once blessing. Take note of how the figures especially on the bottom row are positioned, repeated, switched… If you don’t know the accompanying text, it is quite hard to figure out what’s going on.
This is a completely different way of utilizing the available space on a page. There are no empty spaces allocated for key scenes to be illustrated individually; instead, a narrative stream elegantly winds across the bottom margin. What we see is essentially impossible: you can’t see the same individual four times within the same image.
This narrative style is not an invention of early Christian art. Franz Wickhoff  calls it “characteristic of the last efforts of pagan art” and points to the imagery on Roman sarcophagi to show “how general this method of narration was in the declining period of antiquity”. Another famous roman example is the continuous frieze on Trajan’s column.
Since only a tiny fraction of early illuminated codices remain to us, examples are rare – yet not limited to the Vienna Genesis. For example, the 6th century Rossano Gospels follow the same line. Below is the illustration for the parable of the Good Samaritan.
While the continuous narrative style is typical for Roman and early Christian art, it is also seen elsewhere. The Bayeux tapestry depicts the events leading up to, during and after the battle without any division between scenes. Continuous narrative was also used in Buddhist art. Finally, the style was revived for a while by Renaissance painters.
All of which leads us to a certain 15th century manuscript which, before it was carbon dated, had so often tricked researchers into believing it had been made by one of those Renaissance Italians rediscovering the ways of their ancestors.
Emblems in Q13
Many of my previous posts have been intended to demonstrate that Quire 13 nymphs have a strong emblematic component.
- Nymphs never use their objects on the environment or each other, suggesting an emblematic “attribute” status. The object appears to tell us something about the figure’s identity, rather than serving a practical function in the composition.
- Poses are limited and, as I’ve discussed in recent posts, must almost certainly be read in a symbolical way. Standard poses are typical for emblematic images (like Christ holding up two fingers).
- Interaction between nymphs is limited, though there are notable exceptions.
- Facial expressions are usually limited to a blank stare or slight smile or in some cases what looks like sorrow. The subject of nymph facial expressions is certainly worth a post of its own. Again, with some exceptions, nymphs’ emotions appear to be mostly “introspective” and not immediately caused by or aimed at the surroundings.
This is important to point out first: if there are narratives within Q13, they are loaded with emblematic features.
Evidence of Continuous Narrative
I expect that most readers won’t find it hard to see the emblematic aspects of Q13, but discerning narrative lines might be more difficult. There are good reasons why this is the case:
- dominance of emblematic aspects
- other nymphs standing around without doing much
- people don’t expect a story to be told in what looks, at first sight, like bathing images or symbolic figures
But, perhaps most importantly: most modern viewers are not familiar with the continuous narrative style. Additionally, if given the combination of this particular style and the preference for nudes, an origin in the first centuries CE is likely (as has been my opinion for some time now). This means that the images have been copied at least once, but likely more often, which always involves erosion and loss of information.
There are a few ways continuous narratives can help us read Q13 compositions. Q13 is generally believed to consist of two different subquires which got unified and shuffled (intentionally or not) at some later point. Different folios reflect the properties of the continuous narrative differently and to a greater or lesser extent.
For example, there’s the fact that continuous narrative illustrations mirror the flow of a text, flowing like a river through the available space. In Q13 too, there are indications that the image and the text keep track of each other. If I just mark out the different “paragraphs”, one can see how they often correspond to a new element in the drawing.
And more importantly, there’s the matter of repeated characters. In the Vienna Genesis, one can usually tell one character from the other by looking at their clothing. We don’t have such luxury in the VM, where a different hair style or headgear might be the only thing we have to tell nymphs apart. Additionally, continuous narrative illustrations in manuscripts are designed to be read alongside the text, which is again something we can’t yet do in the VM. But compare the way the figures line up along a “path”:
It’s not a true continuous narrative unless characters are repeated within the same images though. Are there any instances where we can be fairly sure of this in the VM? Let’s focus on one example, f84r.
In the image above, there are a few recurring features. There’s three nymphs bending over to reach into a “bucket’. Two nymphs peeking from behind another one, making a nasty face, and one standing in the open smiling widely. Four nymphs looking on in surprise. There are various ways to divide this into scenes, but, as the Vienna Genesis shows, this isn’t always logically possible in a continuous illustration. You get characters overlapping with themselves, being omitted, doubled, looking at themselves, blending into the next scene…
So the following is an example, an attempt to divide into separate scenes what wasn’t meant to be divided in the first place. But it might help our modern eyes understand what’s going on. For this example I assume that there are three characters and that the story is to be read from right to left.
Imagine, for example, the “hiding” nymph spying on the others, trying to discover the location of a hidden object; and then, in the third picture, smiling madly when she finds out. Completely different interpretations will remain possible until we can read the text, but it seems clear to me that characters are repeated within the same scene.
Much the same is true for the drawing on top of the folio. You can make up your own story here, the contents are not my point in this post. Rather, I want to show how certain characters (and even the scenery) repeat, situations evolve and so on.
At the very least, it should be clear now that narrative elements are developed in certain Q13 folios. Characters interact, are aware of each other, show varying emotions… Only in most folios, there seems to be such a strong emblematic imperative that these narrative lines get overshadowed. Or perhaps they were only secondary to begin with.
The true meaning will likely only be revealed when, or if, we can understand the text. But I hope that with this post I have demonstrated that there is more behind the compositions than what one would expect at first sight. Furthermore, keeping in mind the properties of continuous narrative scenes may help us to better understand these drawings.
 See this video by Khan Academy dedicated entirely to this folio: https://youtu.be/ogrRKL30iJ8
 On Modes of Visual Narration in Early Buddhist Art. Vidya Dehejia. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 72, No. 3. (Sep., 1990), pp. 374-392